Author: Linni Kral
Call me ignorant, but I didn’t know what halaal meant before coming to South Africa. Apparently it’s like kosher, but for Muslims. Given the enormous Muslim population in Cape Town, it’s a buzz word you can find stamped on anything from potato chips in the grocery store to a classy beach-front restaurant.
When I first walked into Maharaja, a University of Cape Town campus secret, I was a little put off. One dining companion had groceries in tow, and was almost sent home with her turkey lunchmeat. It wasn’t because she wasn’t buying anything from Maharaja’s purveyor, but because he cannot allow meat in the store.
But luckily we weren’t dismayed by this jolly Muslim man’s religious restrictions. Call us immoral, but we pleaded and wore him down eventually-with his sunny disposition, it didn’t take long. Say what you will about Europeans, but folks on the African continent have been nothing but friendly to us, even after hearing the first tones of a Yank accent. In fact, sometimes that brightens their mood even more.
This proved to be the first of literally countless trips to the Maharaj, who follow stricter halaal standards than most of the joints in Cape Town. The word literally means “permissible” in Arabic, and whether or not it connotes vegetarianism is debatable. This debate is a moot point at Maharaja, where the “chicken” curry uses TVP (Textured Vegetable Protein) in ways I never thought possible. An absence of meat was the last thing on my mind.
What I really came here for, though, was the bunny chow. This is a South African staple, made by filling a loaf of bread with a curry of your choosing. It started during Apartheid, when lower-class citizens were not allowed to sit down at restaurants and therefore needed portable dishes, issued through restaurant back doors. The chow came out to us portable as ever, wrapped in foil that gave way to heaping steam when peeled back. The thing was big enough to feed at least two and too hot to touch-I could hardly imagine carrying it an alley, but maybe the serving methods have changed.
Spilling over with butter beans and curry gravy, the bread was still light and downy, the kind you can squeeze into a ball then watch bounce back. I’ve ordered this many times since, though it’s always a tough decision. There’s the mushroom breyani, a highly-spiced, risotto-esque blend of creamy yellow rice and a marinated trio of mushrooms. Then there’s the usual staples like palak paneer and tikka masala. But what it usually boils down to, at least for me, is bunny chow or rootie.
Ah, rootie. For you Midwesterners out there, this is like the roti prata served at Flat Top Grill when you put a blue stick in your stir fry concoction-only worlds better. Imagine the eggiest, doughiest, and greasiest pancake imaginable, then flatten it out, heat it in a little more butter for good measure, top it with a stew of butternut squash and chickpeas, then top it all off with some cucumber yogurt sauce. Sound heavenly? Well, it isn’t my staple lunch here for nothing. Every Wednesday, before my African drumming class, the jolly Muslim man greeted me, never failing to offer a samosa even though I never ordered one. No, his smile and simple experiments with carbs and curry were enough for me. That, and the occasional banana coconut honey lassi.
Meat? Who needs meat?
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